Breakdowns

Keys to the Game for AFC Wild Card Matchups

With two extra playoff teams this season, the NFL’s Wild Card weekend features back-to-back triple-headers. Here’s a look at the three AFC matchups:

SEE ALSO: NFC Wild Card Matchups

Saturday, 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS

This matchup pits one of the NFL’s best offenses against one of the league’s best defenses. The Buffalo Bills won their first division title since 1995 while the Colts needed a loss from the Miami Dolphins and a win against the Jaguars in order to secure their first playoff berth since 2018. Josh Allen has had his best season to date while Philip Rivers is looking to go out with a bang before potentially retiring. Will Buffalo’s offense be too hot to handle even for the Colts’ highly ranked defense? Here are the keys to success for both of these teams:

Keys to the game for the Indianapolis Colts:

1. Feed Jonathan Taylor

Indianapolis’ offense had a hard time getting itself together through the first half of the season, but it has come around now that the Colts have started to run their offense through rookie running back Jonathan Taylor. In Week 17, Taylor had 253 yards and 2 touchdowns en route to a 28-14 win. With how well the Bills have been playing on offense, especially the past five games, the Colts are going to have to do everything in their power to keep Allen and company off the field. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Bills’ defense got steadily better as the regular season went on, the Bills still gave up 119.6 yards per game on the ground, which means the Colts will still be able to run their best form of offense. Establishing Taylor in the run game will go a long way toward securing a win for Indy.

2. Get after Josh Allen

One huge factor for Josh Allen’s MVP-caliber season has been due to the great play of Buffalo’s offensive line. In the regular season, Buffalo only gave up 27 sacks, which was the ninth-least in the league. In the last two weeks of the season, Allen was only sacked once. This included a matchup against the Miami Dolphins, who have one of the better defenses in the league. Moreover, the Bills only gave up one sack to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that leads the league in sacks with 56, in Week 14. In order to stop Buffalo’s red-hot offense, the Colts will have to do a good job of pressuring Allen so that he does not have all day in the pocket to make clean throws to his receivers. Look for DeForest Buckner to play a huge role in this game if the Colts are to disrupt Allen’s rhythm.

3. Force Buffalo to become a running team

The Bills have been very good at passing the ball this season but their run game has been very inconsistent. The Bills rank 20th in the NFL in rushing yards per game with 107.7, and their leading rusher was Devin Singletary with 687 yards. With how well Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley have done this year, it is no wonder the Bills do not lean heavily on the run game. Indianapolis’ pass defense has not been nearly as prolific as it was at the beginning of the year, as it finished the regular season giving up 241.6 yards per game (20th in the NFL). The Colts’ best shot at winning this game is if they can limit the damage from Buffalo’s great receivers and force the Bills to run the ball more. In comparison with the pass defense, Indianapolis has the second-best rush defense in the league, so it is essential that the Colts force the Bills to become a running team in order to not experience another great outing from Allen and Diggs.

Keys to the game for the Buffalo Bills:

1. Make Philip Rivers uncomfortable

Statistically speaking, the Colts have one of the best pass-blocking offensive lines in the NFL. Indianapolis has only given up 21 sacks this season (second-fewest in the league) and Philip Rivers has only been sacked 19 times this year. This is the second-lowest amount for Rivers in his long career; however, when the Colts have given up pressure this season, Rivers has looked out of sorts, mainly due to his lack of mobility. The Colts’ receivers are solid, but there have been times this season where they have not been able to get open quick enough, which exposes Rivers’ lack of mobility. Buffalo is 15th in the league in sacks with 38, and the pass-rush will have to get home in order to potentially force some crucial turnovers that get Allen and company back onto the field to score more points.

2. Get the ball to Dawson Knox and Isaiah McKenzie

With how inconsistent Indianapolis’ pass defense has been down the stretch, it is realistic to think the Colts will focus much of their attention on Diggs and Beasley, the two primary pass-catchers in this Buffalo Bills offense. Two players that should be the immediate beneficiaries of this strategy would be tight end Dawson Knox and wideout Isaiah McKenzie. The former has continually been a red-zone threat for Allen, but he has shown flashes of being a vertical threat and exposing safeties who don’t have great man coverage abilities. Meanwhile, McKenzie has been very useful for this Buffalo offense as they are able to run trick plays with him as a passer, and his speed is a game changer. Look for these two players to have bigger roles in this one, especially if Indianapolis’ defense does a really good job on Diggs and Beasley.

3. Stop T.Y. Hilton

Taylor has been the workhorse for the Colts’ offense as of late, but there is another player who has also been trending upwards. It is veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton. Since Week 12, Hilton has only had less than 60 receiving yards in one game (Week 17) and had all five of his touchdowns since that Week 12 loss to the Titans. He has gotten this Indy receiving game going, and that’s why he must be stopped. Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White will need to have a good game in order to make sure the Colts offense is one-dimensional. If Hilton has a big game, it could make the Colts unpredictable and this may not bode well for Buffalo to come out with a victory as its defense could revert back to its own inconsistent ways from earlier this season. Indianapolis’ passing game has had its ups and downs this year, but Hilton has been the most consistent presence down the stretch. Stop him and it could mean that Allen sees more time on the field to build a convincing lead for this Buffalo team.

— Brian Friedland

Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET, ESPN

Keys to the game for the Baltimore Ravens:

1. Take advantage of Tennessee’s shaky pass defense

Part of the reason why Tennessee was unable to hang onto its huge lead in Week 17 was due to its pass defense being unable to stop Deshaun Watson, who threw for 365 yards and 3 touchdowns. Baltimore’s passing offense has not been a featured part of the offense just because of how good its rushing offense is, but the Ravens have the weapons to take advantage of a defense that has given up 277.4 passing yards per game, the fourth-most in the NFL. With Tennessee keying on Baltimore’s run game, the Ravens could take advantage of the Titans’ secondary with speedy receivers like Marquise Brown and Devin Duvernay. Don’t forget about TE Mark Andrews, who is still a viable vertical threat in this offense as well.

2. Contain Derrick Henry

The Titans have been objectively worse this season when they aren’t able to pound the ball 30-40 times a game. For example, Tennessee did not look nearly as good against the Browns and Steelers when Ryan Tannehill had to drop back to pass more often than handing it off to Derrick Henry. It is for this reason the Ravens’ utmost priority should be on stopping the former Heisman Trophy winner who torched the Ravens to the tune of 133 yards and one score on 28 carries in Week 11. The Ravens were in a position to win, however, as this was not Henry’s most efficient game this season and the Titans were forced to throw more often than they wanted to. Baltimore may not be able to fully stop Henry, but they cannot allow him to dictate the tempo of the game like he did in the playoffs last season.

3. Continue to utilize J.K. Dobbins

The Ravens’ offense has been clicking down the stretch, and a lot of that has to do with second-round pick J.K. Dobbins moving into a more prominent role on the offense. In fact, Dobbins has scored a rushing touchdown in seven consecutive weeks. It is no coincidence that some of the Ravens’ higher-scoring outputs this season have come with Dobbins helping to take some of the load off star QB Lamar Jackson. Dobbins had a solid game against the Titans in Week 11 that saw him rush for 70 yards and a score while also catching two passes for 15 yards. If Dobbins gets more of a workload in this game, it is certainly possible the Ravens are able to control the time of possession and be able to keep Henry and company off the field.

Keys to the game for the Tennessee Titans:

1. Use the Ravens’ offensive formula against them

One of the reasons the Titans were able to defeat the Ravens this season was due to the Titans winning the time of possession battle. In Week 11, the Titans controlled the ball for a little over 33 minutes while the Ravens only had it for a little over 31 minutes. The Titans actually didn’t win the time of possession battle in the playoffs last year against the Ravens, but their defense played well enough to force the Ravens into a lot of passing downs. This was something the Ravens’ offense is not built for. In order to have a repeat showing of that playoff matchup, the Titans should look to feed Henry early and often to try to get the Ravens’ defense tired while also not allowing Jackson to be on the field very often.

2. Force Lamar Jackson into some costly turnovers

Tennesseee’s pass defense has not been great this season as stated earlier; however, the Titans are still one of the league leaders in forcing turnovers, specifically interceptions. In fact, the Titans were seventh in the regular season for most interceptions with 15. In the games that Baltimore has lost this season, turnovers have played a huge role, as teams have been able to force Jackson into turnovers. If Baltimore wins the time of possession battle, it may be up to the Titans’ defense to force Jackson into making a costly mistake. Moreover, the Titans only forced one turnover against Baltimore earlier this year in a game that saw the Titans forced to come from behind, whereas they were able to force Jackson into three turnovers in the playoff game last year in a much more comfortable win for Tennessee.

3. Get the tight ends involved

This season, a lot of the Titans’ tight end production has come in the red zone, specifically off play-action passes near the goal line. The Ravens’ pass defense has been tough this season (sixth-fewest passing yards allowed per game), but there has been some susceptibility to tight ends, as the Ravens have given up 82 receptions for 832 yards to tight ends. In the first matchup between these teams, the Titans’ tight ends combined for 62 yards and a score on 9 receptions. If the Titans are unable to get star wideout A.J. Brown going (only 4 receptions for 62 yards and 1 TD in the first matchup), then the Titans should try to incorporate their tight ends more in order to alleviate some of that pressure. This may also allow the Titans to hang onto a big lead if they are able to use their tight ends to move the chains instead of relying on their main players on the offense.

— Brian Friedland

Sunday, 8:15 p.m. ET, NBC

The Cleveland Browns are in the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Sure enough, they’ll play a familiar foe in divisional-rival Pittsburgh — the same opponent they faced in their 2002 wild card game (Pittsburgh won, 36-33). Pittsburgh made the playoffs for the eighth time in their 14 years under head coach Mike Tomlin.

Keys to the Game for the Pittsburgh Steelers

1. Slow down the Cleveland RBs

Cleveland has built their offense through their run game. Their offensive line is one of the more talented units in the NFL and their running back tandem is excellent. Pittsburgh’s defensive line needs to win in the trenches and slow down Cleveland’s run game. In each loss Cleveland had this season, they failed to have one of their running backs eclipse 100 yards rushing. Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb are two of Cleveland’s best playmakers and limiting their explosive runs will be huge. Chubb was second in the NFL in “big run plays” (rushing plays of 20-plus yards).

2. Figure out a way to run the football effectively

Since Week 7, Pittsburgh has struggled immensely running the football. From Weeks 2-6, they had five straight 100-yard rushing games. From Week 7 on, they’ve had just one game with over 100 rushing yards. In their games with over 100 rushing yards they’ve averaged less than one turnover, compared to about 1.27 when they fail to eclipse 100 yards rushing. Forcing Cleveland to respect their run game will result in Ben Roethlisberger seeing less pressure. Pittsburgh cannot become one-dimensional too quickly.

3. Turnovers will be essential

This one may be straightforward, because the teams who win the turnover battle normally win in the NFL. Pittsburgh’s defense was on fire through the first 11 games of the season. They averaged 2.09 turnovers per game compared to just 0.8 over their last five games. They are 1-4 in those last five games. Through their first 11 games, they were 11-0. Teams that force turnovers and give their offense more opportunities to score have more success. In all of Cleveland’s losses, they lost the turnover battle, compared to winning the turnover battle in 10 of their 11 wins.

Keys to the Game for the Cleveland Browns

1. Establish the run with the duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt

Chubb and Hunt are not a 1-2 punch; they’re a 1a-1b punch. Cleveland has arguably the best running back tandem in the NFL in these two Pro Bowlers. The duo has averaged a combined 4.92 yards per carry this season. In their five losses, Cleveland averaged 99.5 rushing yards per game. In their 11 wins, they averaged 170.6 rushing yards per game. Although Pittsburgh’s defense has been great this season, they’ve been vulnerable against the run, ranking 13th in yards per carry allowed (4.3).

2. Tackle Pittsburgh’s playmakers in space

Roethlisberger currently has the fastest time to throw in the NFL at 2.3 seconds. He’s been great when he’s gotten the ball out of his hands quickly to his playmakers. When his playmakers have been able to create after the catch, the Steelers and Roethlisberger have excelled. When the Steelers have lost this season with Roethlisberger at quarterback, his adjusted yards gained per pass attempt has been 4.55 (in their three losses). When they’ve won, Roethlisberger’s adjusted yards gained per pass attempt has been 7.33. Tackling Pittsburgh’s playmakers in space and not allowing them to gain yards after the catch will be crucial for Cleveland.

3. Get Baker Mayfield out of the pocket

Pittsburgh’s defense led the NFL in pressures and sacks. They’ve been phenomenal at applying pressure to opposing QBs. Baker Mayfield is at his best when he is able to move outside the pocket and make throws. Finding ways to move Mayfield out of the pocket to alleviate the pressure from Pittsburgh’s defensive line, through rollouts and play-action will be key for Mayfield’s success as a passer.

— Jared Hammond